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Japan’s bid to reach a sixth straight World Cup suffered a damaging early blow with a 2-1 defeat to the United Arab Emirates on Thursday night.

Japan, playing its first game of the final round of Asian qualifiers for Russia 2018, took an 11th-minute lead through Keisuke Honda at Saitama Stadium, only to be pegged back nine minutes later by a direct free kick from Ahmed Khalil.

Things went from bad to worse when debutant Ryota Oshima conceded a penalty early in the second half that Khalil converted with a cheeky chip over goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa, and Japan failed to find a response as the UAE held on to claim the three points.

“It’s a terrible result,” said Japan manager Vahid Halilhodzic. “We had a lot of chances, but to give away two goals from a free kick and a penalty is just too easy. And I don’t know what to say about the referee. It’s not easy to accept his decisions.

“But we still have nine games left to play and it’s not over yet. Now we have to analyze this game and get back to work.”

Japan has been drawn with the UAE, Australia, Iraq, Thailand and Saudi Arabia in final-round Group B, with the top two teams qualifying for the World Cup directly and the third going into a playoff. Halilhodzic’s side next plays Thailand away on Sept. 6.

Japan crashed out in the quarterfinals of last year’s Asian Cup after losing on penalties to the UAE, and captain Makoto Hasebe offered no excuses for the team’s latest slip-up.

“It was our individual mistakes that led to their two goals and we feel that responsibility,” said Hasebe, who was winning his 100th cap. “There are a lot of things we have to improve on. We have another game to come and we can’t let our heads drop. We have to get our minds right and move on.

“We knew how important the first game was but this is the result we came away with. Of course it’s disappointing but we need to move on.”

Japan took control of the game when a foul on Hiroki Sakai gave the home side a free kick in a dangerous area, and Hiroshi Kiyotake floated the ball deep to the back post for Honda to head home.

But the UAE hit back less than 10 minutes later when Maya Yoshida gave away a free kick on the edge of the Japan box, and Khalil curled his shot over the wall and beyond the reach of Nishikawa to level the score at 1-1.

Shinji Kagawa should have restored Japan’s lead when he scuffed a followup from a saved Honda header wide of the post in the 26th minute, but the UAE also had chances and Ali Mabkhout almost sent the visitors into a halftime lead only for Nishikawa to come to the rescue minutes before the break.

UAE goalkeeper Amer Abdulrahman tipped over a fierce drive from Oshima as the second half got underway, but Japan’s evening took a serious turn for the worse when Oshima tripped Ismail Al Hammadi in the box and Qatari referee Abdulrahman Al-Jassim pointed to the penalty spot.

Khalil was coolness personified as he stepped up to take the penalty, lazily chipping a shot down the middle after Nishikawa had committed himself to one side.

Kiyotake missed a virtual open goal and Shinji Okazaki headed against the crossbar as Japan piled on the pressure in response, and Halilhodzic brought on Takuma Asano and Takashi Usami to further bolster his team’s attacking options.

A shot from Asano appeared to cross the UAE line but was not given, and some sublime touches by playmaker Omar Abdulrahman allowed the visitors to see out the win with some degree of comfort.

“I wanted to show my speed when I came on and find the gaps,” said Asano. “We were losing 2-1 but I was confident that we could turn things around.

“I felt the responsibility and the pride of the team. It was good experience for me but if you don’t win it doesn’t mean anything. We had a lot of chances tonight and I personally wasn’t able to take any of them.”

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